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Lunchtime Reading: Communicating the value of higher education to government in a new political era

  • 9 July 2024
  • By Ruth Arnold

And so it is decided. After weeks of debates and polls, elephant traps and memes, the election is over. Labour wins a majority of 172 seats and shows assurance as it takes the reins of government. It’s been a long wait.

With it, something else begins — the long hard work of government shaped by morning-after fiscal realities, an inheritance of policy decisions that went before and brooding geopolitical weather systems which pay little heed to the triumphs and disasters of national political campaigns. Then of course there are ‘events’ which can swipe an administration from the side like an unexpected storm. Who would bet against at least a few ‘unknown unknowns’.

For higher education, a political affairs reset began long before the polls concluded. Shadow ministers were met and briefed, along with their teams. Conference speaker invitations and parliamentary events were used to facilitate relationships and a recognition of key issues. University policy briefings written, risks registered and manifestos and speeches scrutinised.

Yet throughout the election, the Labour Party like the previous government held back from making higher education a priority issue — too difficult, too many other priorities. In a debate Q&A, the new Prime Minister said he’d made a choice between the NHS and tuition fees and had chosen the NHS. No contest. Outside those with a vested interest, this barely triggered a headline.

But how should universities speak to the Government now the campaign is over and they are faced with an increasingly brutal financial context? We may know what we want to say on a hundred topics, and there is no shortage of analysis or analysts. We may simply want to pull an emergency cord. But what is the absorptive capacity of a Prime Minister and government with Vice-Chancellor style headaches on a national scale and in practically every arena?

For university executives, academics and policymakers, there will be plenty of advice on how to represent institutions and the sector’s own interests, and indeed the hard talk and facing of financial realities is already underway. The government may have changed but the officials at the Treasury and DoE have not. Yesterday’s realities will feature in today’s ministerial briefings. For those having the toughest of conversations and who are making plans for the previously unimaginable, I wish only the best.


But something else has changed beyond the party of government and there is an opportunity with it, although I think it will take a cultural shift to bring it to pass. Because to really engage a new administration with a long-term ambition for the country and a plan for how to achieve it, we need to start talking to and about the country, less about ourselves.

The saying is that politicians campaign in poetry, govern in prose, but this is no time to neglect narrative and the shift is already dramatic. Simply increasing the volume will fail. When a new government is faced with demands for help from every quarter, it simply isn’t going to prioritise university interests over children who haven’t eaten breakfast or an elderly person with dementia waiting in A&E.

In his May 27 election speech, the Prime Minister-in-waiting described his political motivation in terms of justice, saying it was

More than individual changes or policies, but about values, temperament, character and a bigger question: Whose side are you on? Who do you hold in your mind’s eye when you are making decisions?

That’s revealing. I think it’s safe to say that the person in his mind’s eye is not a struggling VC, underpaid lecturer or even a student missing lectures for work. The test for education will be does it redress imbalances and challenge injustice or does it embed it? If the answer is the former, we need to show how and be partners in a wider vision.


When Public First carried out research for Greater Manchester into the priorities of local people, top of the list by some margin was economic growth and providing employment. But reducing inequality, improving their health, supporting the environment, and increasing job quality also featured. For the national government, the election was dominated by the economy, health and immigration (defined by Labour during the election as being at least in part a reflection of an absence of skills).

Higher education has something important to contribute to each of these, not by blowing our own trumpets but by being part of a team, sleeves rolled up, finding solutions at a time of deep need. That means a shift in style from ministerial announcement to national purpose. The mantra is Actions Not Words. We shall see — action being notoriously more difficult and expensive than the alternative — but the communication style has shifted and higher education will need to mirror that. Media teams take note.

One of the difficulties of modern communications is the urge to claim credit, and both government and university communication have often focused too heavily on announcements, not enough on the wider context and the long game. This isn’t the Starmer style. He’s signalling a mood of serious professionalism, one that aims to be effective rather than showy. He’s been criticised for being short on charm, even boring, but now he wants to turn those perceptions to an advantage.

And here universities have a crucial asset, if we recognise it. As Andy Haldane has said, one of the most important attributes of a country’s institutions is an ability to act with long-term purpose, and that matters because much of what is needed will take years, even decades.

Work on big social issues must be sustained through changes in governments and people, and it certainly can’t be measured through headlines. For all the recent undermining of autonomy, universities are largely still charities and have a long-term commitment to educational purpose at their core. They want to use knowledge for public benefit, to individuals and society. Funding, policy, recruitment and rankings are all part of the how, but they aren’t the why. Those of us who have worked previously in charity communications will recognise a shift in language.

A mission of national renewal

Take the government’s stated top priority — economic growth. This is an area where universities not only have a powerful story to tell but a contribution to make. And we shouldn’t forget that UK higher education is not just a recipient of public funds but a growth sector and driver of economic impact in its own right. On this, we are not supplicants but generators of national income and economic opportunity. International students bring £42 billion annually into the UK economy and cross-subsidise the research, education and skills the government needs if it is to stand a chance of addressing our multiple challenges.

There aren’t many areas where the UK is, in that over-used phrase, world-leading, but education is one. When you ask the Department for Business and Trade about exports, higher education is clearly one sector where the British offer has the attention of the world. We need to do all it takes through national and local cooperation to support this, address genuine challenges and ensure our global position is maintained.

This renewal isn’t only measured in charts but in people. Perhaps hardest of all, Labour has said it wants to ensure ‘the earnings of our children should not be determined by those of their parents.’ Anyone who has looked at the data and what lies beneath it knows just how hard this is, the work of many administrations and educators at all levels and parties to even begin to deliver such a profound change.

This commitment is central to universities, but is that what it feels like from the outside? Starmer has talked about the need to eradicate the snobbery that looks down on vocational education, the need to drain a well of the disrespect he sees as a ‘cultural bruise’. He has acknowledged the work of others in addressing the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ but wants to go further in challenging what Labour sees as ‘the toxic divides that maintain the class ceiling’. Universities need to describe their role in this endeavour in equally sincere and powerful terms, and to be believed.

Working with Labour

In the late 90s, I stood with an engineering professor on derelict post-industrial land in South Yorkshire with a government Minister with a keen political and practical interest in what universities could do for the country — Richard Caborn wasn’t from DoE, he was a Minister for Industry and Sheffield MP with long trade union experience of the decline of the steel industry and its impact on the supply chain. Richard needed no tutorial on why it mattered to modernise and renew an economy in deep trouble. And so we joined forces. We sought opportunities to make connections with global companies, to secure land, to connect and cajole.

25 years later that project which uniquely brought together academia, industry, national and regional government is a flagship advanced manufacturing research campus of the kind every government in the UK and beyond wants. Projects it inspired are found in Wales and Scotland. And despite all that went before, Orgreave today is home to research on composites, digital twinning and civil nuclear manufacturing. There is a factory of the future and a training centre where over 2000 local apprentices have since accessed technical education without paying a penny of fees or incurring loan debt. Universities can play a part in a bold collaborative vision. We were quietly busy delivering change in the Red Wall before it was ever called that.

Making this work given departmental system structures wasn’t easy — when years later we invited then Science Minister Jo Johnson to give his first speech on the renewed Orgreave site, the pre-visit team almost cancelled because the work appeared to cross-ministerial boundaries. What was this, asked a clearly unhappy press officer. A university? A factory? Apprentices? Each had a different minister with a separate place on the comms grid.

A new government wants to address some of these departmental barriers directly. The Prime Minister will personally Chair new ‘mission boards’ to aid cross-department collaboration. Identifying broad problems and working across departmental and sector boundaries offers a chance to be part of the teams finding solutions.

Communicating the difference a university can make to a government focused on national problems means showing not telling. It means putting a minister or journalist in a room with a local business or apprentice, not necessarily a Vice-Chancellor. It means passing the engagement opportunity to patients with MND who can speak about research into translational neuroscience with memorable authority — the university standing with but not talking over them. It means meeting industry and health editors as often as those who follow the ups and down of education policy — opening the books on the struggle to make a difference.

The sunlight of hope

For a sector facing cut after cut and all that goes with that, it’s hard to talk about hope. But as well as hard talk about finances, we need to also find our fighting spirit and our optimism.

Universities are full of people who grapple with and reframe problems, investigate with rigour and challenge old ways. They are also home to the young, smart, global and diverse — all needed if the UK is to make a break with the old ways of doing things and find new approaches that work.

But is that how we are seen, especially by a new Government with a very different back story and assumptions? The accusations that universities are self-interested dinosaurs persist, and it takes real people who care to challenge that. Again style and tone matter. Stereotypes are egregious but it is a fact that when I was first old enough to vote under Margaret Thatcher, over 90% of the cabinet was privately educated and under this new government that figure is 4%. Along with that goes an entire language and set of cultural references and signals.

So it will matter that universities aren’t seen as the voice of privilege. I think of the work by Vanessa Toulmin on the restoration of historic Winter Gardens in Blackpool and Morecombe. Her determination to bring her academic expertise to collaborations which deliver regeneration, civic identity, performance and pride to her home communities is extraordinary. Anyone who doubts the power of the arts to transform places and people has never met Vanessa.

There are so many more. Andy Westwood and Richard Jones in Greater Manchester working hand-in-glove with universities, business, health, communities and the mayoral authority. Alex Favier tirelessly building bridges between higher education, government departments and the Midlands Engine, and helping everyone involved represent this effectively overseas. And proudly working-class Mancunian Professor Keith Ridgway who founded that work on Orgreave now delivering manufacturing innovation with the Scottish government — someone who really can explain the science of toolmaking in a way which also drives economic growth.

If we are to challenge assumptions about who we are, we will also need more than updated language and a new contact book. We need to move more HE communications and public affairs away from the conference panel or Whitehall meeting room and into local business, hospitals, community groups, prisons, startups, factories or schools. Didn’t expect to see us here? Why not?

And we have got beautiful stories to tell, even now. Not only about how we can help a government and a country rebuild an economy or improve medical care in the face of demographic change, but stories of understanding and what we hope to be as a people and as a society. Those which in an age of AI, climate emergency and global conflicts ask what is to be human and how can we live together.

I have spent time recently in a dementia ward with my mother. Millions of us share this experience. It’s a sharp reminder that we need more than technological answers to the challenges of prolonged ill health, we also want to know how to live better. We need beauty. We want intelligence with compassion, people with insight also into the human condition. We need music.

I also sat in a student performance at Royal Holloway and listened to its musicians, watched original drama and shared digital art. Want to know why the world comes to London in search of creativity? The answer was in that room. Want to know who is rethinking work, society, justice — again the answer is in that university and so many others like it.

None of this is easy, but it’s worth taking a step back before we find ourselves singly doing more of the same.

UK universities are facing the hardest times I have seen in my own 30 years working in and with the sector. People, work and even whole institutions we care about face genuine existential threats and the cuts have already begun. There are many students who need urgent help now. But that can’t be all we speak about, and if it is we won’t be able to help others or ourselves.

We make our own history but not in the times of our own choosing. It’s a new day, a new opportunity and we need to communicate in new ways that demonstrate we recognise the challenges of the hour and are ready and willing to rise to them.

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  1. Albert Wright says:

    Interesting article.

    The UK is much more than the Higher Education sector and is not seen as a priority project by the Government or voters.

    With the new Government, Change, is the word of the moment and universities must join in too.

    If they want to retain their individual independence they may need to merge / collaborate with other institutions. It is strange how many universities are keen on international cooperation but are not that interested with working with institutions in their own region.

    The other buzz words are “economic growth”, productivity, more for less and create your own efficiency to fund your own future.

  2. Ruth Arnold says:

    Thanks Albert. The advanced manufacturing work and training I mention in this article was absolutely delivered through collaboration and would have failed without it. That included local companies as well as the global giants they supplied, local FE in support of apprentices working with cutting-edge (literally) research and local and national government. The purpose mattered more than the silos. It was a real lesson in what is possible.

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